Mary Poplin is a former radical feminist, new age spiritualist, liberal professor who became a Christian and spent some time working with Mother Teresa. Hers is an unusual and intriguing story.
Among other things, she talks about Mother Teresa’s radical forgiveness. For instance, Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about Mother Teresa in which he criticized her vilely for taking money from other people, among other things. The brief glimpse Mary Poplin gives us into the life of Mother Teresa reveals a woman who, perhaps as much as anyone in modern history, lived the sacrificial example of Jesus. This stands in contrast to the stark, cold criticism of the atheist, Dawkins.
The point of this blog article isn’t a comparison between the two, however, but, to focus “radical forgiveness”. Mother Teresa’s response was: “It matters not; he’s forgiven.”
And when Dawkins heard the response, he wasn’t very happy about it. He scoffed that he doesn’t need to be forgiven, and he didn’t ask to be forgiven. Mother Teresa’s response when she heard about his response was to laugh and to say, “It’s not I that forgives; it’s God. God has forgiven him.”
The point here, is that though Dawkins had reviled Mother Teresa, she forgave him unconditionally. Mary Poplin, summarized Mother Teresa and her followers, “They didn’t have any hooks left in them.” They didn’t hold on to any ill will whatsoever.
I don’t know about Mother Teresa’s theology, but the example of living out the forgiveness that Jesus demonstrated and called us to live out is the key. It is radical, and it’s rooted in our acknowledgment that God is God, and we are not. You might as well call it radical obedience because it matters not what we think or feel about the subject.
Jesus, as He was dying on the cross, demonstrated this radical forgiveness to us when he said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:24) Jesus was the most radical forgiver of all!
Jesus commanded us also to forgive radically. He said:
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours.” (Matthew 6:15)
Notice that our willingness to forgive others doesn’t affect others; it affects us! If we forgive, we will be forgiven. If we refuse to forgive, we will not be forgiven. The real point of this blog piece, however, isn’t about forgiving others, but forgiving ourselves. It’s hard enough to forgive others, but it can be harder to forgive ourselves.
Mary Poplin talks about her struggle to forgive herself. She had lived a licentious and debauched life. She had not just one, but two abortions. Years later, after she had become a believer but was still struggling with her past, she was at a retreat. She was walking by herself, when she heard a voice say, “Who are you not to forgive someone I have forgiven!”
She was taken aback because forgiveness was the whole point of the retreat. She had a list of people to forgive, and she had been engaged in the very process of forgiving everyone on that list. She didn’t understand the clearly chastising tone of the voice she “heard”.
Butt the voice was insistent – “Who are you not to forgive someone I have forgiven!”
She heard the same words three times. She still didn’t understand. When she said, “Lord, I don’t understand”, the response came back:
“I forgave you the first time you asked, and I don’t want you to ask again!”
In this context, she made the following statement that sticks with me. She said that the idea of forgiving yourself is not a Christian idea whatsoever. Self-forgiveness is a secular, psychological principal. People told her, “God was telling you to forgive yourself”; but she says that isn’t what God was saying to her. God was saying, “You don’t even have the authority to forgive yourself! I’ve done it!”
The authority to forgive is God’s and God’s alone. It isn’t a question of whether we forgive ourselves. The only question that matters is whether God forgives us, and the answer is a very decisive, yes!
God is faithful to forgive us when we ask.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
That is a promise, and God keeps his promises. God is not a man that He will forget or go back on a promise that He has made.
Marry Poplin goes on to say, “While Scripture assured that me I was forgiven, I was still trying to work it off until I felt that I might deserve it.” This work on our part, of course, negates what God has already done for us! We have this pride within ourselves that wants to earn what we have been given, but our insistence on earning it is really like a slap in God’s face!
If you are struggling with forgiving yourself, it isn’t a matter of whether you can forgive yourself. If you refuse to forgive yourself when God has forgiven you, you are exalting yourself over him and usurping His authority. That in itself is sin.
If you have confessed your sins and asked for forgiveness, God has forgiven you.
God alone has the authority to forgive. Who are you not to forgive who God has forgiven?